Repression, Brutality, Impunity: An Overview of Human Rights Defenders in Saudi Arabia

For years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been increasing its repression of human rights defenders (HRDs). In order to silence dissidents, government authorities arbitrarily interrogate, detain and imprison HRDs under the Anti-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law for their peaceful activities and human rights work. In a country where the freedom of expression, assembly, and opinion is not tolerated, the Saudi government systematically subjects HRDs to harassment and reprisals, whether they are in Saudi Arabia or abroad. Considered enemies of the State by the regime, by the end of 2020, all Saudi HRDs were either in detention without charge, on trial, or serving their prison terms.

Widespread and Systematic Pattern of Repression

The repression against HRDs is widespread and follows a similar pattern. HRDs are repressed through detentions, arrests and imprisonments, and their basic human rights are violated in all stages of the judicial process. Often held incommunicado, they are tortured during interrogation or in detention. For instance, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathoul was held incommunicado for three months and was subjected to physical and psychological torture such as beatings and electric shocks. She was also sexually assaulted and threatened with rape. Additionally, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher were held incommunicado without having access to a lawyer. Both were arrested in 2012 without a warrant––while they were still minors––for their participation in a protest. They were tortured in detention and forced to sign a confession without knowing its content. Coerced confessions are common practice in Saudi Arabia, and the courts mostly rely on confessions obtained under torture to issue sentences. Beyond torture and mistreatment, the Saudi judicial system does not respect the rights to a fair trial and due process, two fundamental rights provided by the international human rights framework.

The sentences issued by the courts to HRDs are excessive, violent (e.g. death penalty, life imprisonment or lashes) and unfair. The government uses the Specialized Criminal Court to prosecute and silence the dissidents. It abuses the Anti-Terror Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law to prosecute HRDs in unfair and illegal trials. For instance, the HRDs Raif Badawi, Waleed Abu Al-Khair, and Mohammad Al-Qahtani were arrested, detained, and then prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Law, whereas Loujain Al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi were arrested, detained, and then prosecuted under the Anti-Cybercrime Law. The government resorts to systematic and massive detention and prosecution of HRDs.

In June 2020, 14 supporters of the women’s rights movement detained since 2019 were charged under the Anti-Cybercrime Law and/or the Anti-Terrorism Law. Moreover, the founding members (Essa Al-Hamid, Abdulrahman Al-Hamid, Abdullah al-Hamid) of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA) had all been prosecuted by 2016. On April 14, 2020, one of the founding members, Abdullah al-Hamid, died in prison. It is reported that he died because of medical negligence and a delay in his heart operation. Additionally, he was prohibited from discussing his health conditions with his family.

Detention Conditions in Saudi Prisons

The detention conditions in Saudi prisons, especially pertaining to the treatment of HRDs, are unhygienic and unsanitary; medical care and treatments are often lacking, which puts the lives of the prisoners at risk. Many prisoners have reported being ill-treated and tortured by prison officials. For instance, Raif Badawi, an activist sentenced to ten years and 1000 lashes in 2014 for using an online platform to call for freedom of religion and belief, has been subjected to solitary confinement and denied medical treatment and contact with his family. On September 17, 2019, he carried out a hunger strike to contest the ill-treatment, horrendous detention conditions, and confiscation of his books. He ended his hunger strike on September 21, 2019 following a visit of the Saudi Human Rights Commission.

Raif Badawi was not the only one to perform a hunger strike to protest the conditions in the prison. On March 6, 2021, the HRDs Mohammad Al-Qahtani, Fawzan Al-Harbi, and Issa Al-Nukhaifi, along with 27 others prisoners, started a hunger strike to contest the humiliating conditions and the ill-treatment they endured in the Al-Ha’ir prison. Specifically, they protested the lack of provision of books, the denial of contact with their families, and being held with mentally ill people who allegedly threatened them with death. Al-Qahtani and Al-Harbi were respectively sentenced in March 2013 and in November 2014 to 10 years of prison, followed by a 10 year travel ban upon their release. Al-Nukhaifi was sentenced in February 2018 to six years in prison and banned from travelling for six years as well. The US Department of State argues that holding HRDs in the same cells as persons with mental disabilities is a form of punishment. They finally ended their hunger strike on March 13, 2021 when the Saudi authorities promised they would meet their demands.

COVID-19 in Prisons

Recently, Mohammad al-Qahtani, founding member of ACPRA, has also been held incommunicado after testing positive for COVID-19 when he was serving his sentence in the Al Ha’ir prison. Once he tested positive, he was unable to contact his family to tell them about his health condition and he was taken to an isolation center. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the prison authorities have denied medical care to prisoners infected with the virus and violated even more of their basic human rights, such as not being able to contact their relatives or being placed in isolation. Regarding the spread of COVID-19 in prison, government authorities have neglected medical care and treatment. Indeed, they have not put in place any proper medical procedure to stop the spread of the virus, and they have not implemented a treatment protocol to properly take care of the infected prisoners.

Targeting of Families

Furthermore, in order to silence HRDs, the government of Saudi Arabia does not hesitate to target their families and/or relatives as an act of reprisal against them. For instance, on May 12, 2020, security officers raided the home of Saad Al Jabri’s brother and detained him without cause. Moreover, on August 24, 2020, Saad Al Jabri’s son-in-law was not only arrested in retaliation against him, but also to intimidate Saad Al Jabri for filing a lawsuit against the Saudi government.

Another example is the case of Ali Al-Nimr, the nephew of the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was executed by the Saudi government in 2016. Ali Al-Nimr was arrested without a warrant in February 2012 for his participation in a peaceful protest but also as reprisal against his uncle, Sheikh al-Nimr. Moreover, he was held incommunicado for three months, tortured, and forced to sign a confession which was later used in court to prosecute him. On May 27, 2014, Ali was sentenced to death in an unfair and illegal trial.

Eternally Enemies of the State

Even after being released from prison, HRDs continue to be considered by the regime as enemies of the State. Upon their release, their freedoms of movement and expression are strongly limited in order to hamper the resumption of their human rights work and activism. After being released, a travel ban (most often with the same duration as their sentence) is imposed on them with the aim of preventing them from engaging with international human rights institutions, such as the United Nations.

For instance, lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair received a 15 year travel ban after being sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court to 15 years in prison for peacefully denouncing human rights abuses on social media. Moreover, when Loujain al-Hathloul was released on  February 10, 2021, she was also banned from travelling abroad for four years and at the same time received a media ban.

The government imposes travel and media bans to keep control of HRDs, who are further subjected to online surveillance. Each of their movements is monitored by the State Security Presidency and they are not allowed to express their opinions freely on or off the internet. For instance, Loujain al-Hathloul was released on three years’ probation, meaning she could be arrested for any action that the Saudi government deems illegal. Thus, HRDs are released conditionally and cannot be called free. These government strategies of surveillance and restrictions enable the government to keep an eye on HRDs in order to silence them.

Conclusion: A Kingdom of Repression, Abuse, and Impunity

In conclusion, the repression of HRDs by the Saudi government is widespread and systematic. It fails to comply with international human rights law, as the Saudi government supports and even encourages the torture of HRDs. Indeed, impunity prevails and HRDs continue to be mistreated and tortured during interrogation and detention. Their rights to a fair trial, legal representation, and due process are denied by the government. Consequently, HRDs serve long and excessive sentences from several years’ imprisonment to the death penalty. Once their sentence is finished, HRDs are conditionally released and can face immediate re-imprisonment if they dare to defy the conditions imposed by the Saudi authorities.